There’s a poem by Hafiz that, laid out in prose, goes like this:

“A wine bottle fell from a wagon and broke open in a field. That night one hundred beetles and all their cousins gathered and did some serious binge drinking. They even found some seed husks nearby and began to play them like drums and whirl. This made God very happy.

“Then the ‘night candle’ rose into the sky and one drunk creature, laying down his instrument, said to his friend  for no apparent reason, “What should we do about that moon?”

“Seems to Hafiz most everyone has laid aside the music to tackle such profoundly useless questions.”

Being one of a global population of  pretty close to 7 billion human beetles tackling such profoundly useless questions a modern man or woman, allowing themselves a moment of drums and dancing, might long for a day when life was more simple and grounded. As it is we’ve built a global Godzilla that’s been nibbling at our Beetleness and is presently chomping an arm and leg or two while we’re distracted by the moon of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

The problem is that being a millionaire requires becoming an organ of the self-gobbling Godzilla that will eventually consume not only millionaires but billionaires as well.

If you want a glimpse of what becoming a multi-millionaire does to one’s character take a look at cigarette execs. Cigarette executives have to sell their souls to build luxurious lives on the suffering and death of consumers of their product. In fact, regarding the profoundly useless, is there anything more useless than a cigarette? If their business personas are any indication of what’s going on inside the skulls of Marlboro execs I’d rather be a decent human being with a lower-paying, less destructive occupation.

As Hafiz seems to imply, preoccupation with profoundly useless questions and endeavors takes not just a personal toll, but a toll on society and civilization itself. Being so chronically preoccupied, not only do we personally lose something worthy and essential, but so does our community.

Hafiz says the music and dance of his poem “…made God very happy,” so ditching music and dance as we become ever more absorbed in the profoundly useless must bring God great sadness (whether God is real to you or simply a metaphor for the unknown in no way affects truth of the poet’s intent).

In another poem Hafiz tells us to “Change rooms in your mind for a day.” Good advice.

Let’s say one of the rooms in our national mansion is the vault of acquisition —the one in which our national psyche spends way too much useless time clawing its way to the top 1% of the heap; if so, it might be a healthy idea to take Hafiz’s advice and walk down the hall to the alcove of love and spend some time meditating on the words of another poet (these poets often make such useful observations).

“No man is an island entire of itself,” said John Donne, and this is as true today as it was in 1624 —maybe even truer, or at least more immediately important. To see how this might be so we should consider the whole of Donne’s wise remark:

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume,” Donne wrote, “when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated…As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all….No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

It’s safe to say that John Donne would never have made it into the ranks of this year’s Republican presidential hopefuls. With socialist-tinged remarks like that he’d immediately be cast “…into the furnace of fire —the furnace of Grover (No-tax Pledge) Norquist— where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth,” —which (being biblical) sounds appropriately like a typical day in the currently Republican controlled House of Representatives.

But what John Donne wrote is a bottom-line truth even for those tallying the bottom line of corporations. Like it or not we are bound in a planetary system in which the well-being of one increasingly affects the well-being of “The Other” —that “other” being anyone outside of yourself, your family, your tribe, your ethnicity, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your species, your religion or your nation.

We can’t go on like this.  The planet won’t take it.  It’ll pay us back in spades for our addiction to profoundly useless questions and profoundly useless consumptive compulsions.

As Hafiz also says:

“From the large jug, drink the wine of Unity, so that from your heart you can wash away the futility of life’s grief.

“But like this large jug, still keep the heart expansive. Why would you want to keep the heart captive, like an unopened bottle of wine?”

Why indeed.

by Jim Culleny
12/31/11

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Just read The Future of Moral Machines  here.

“… as machines with limited autonomy operate more often than before in open environments, it becomes increasingly important to design a kind of functional morality that is sensitive to ethically relevant features of those situations.”

If that doesn’t sound like a load of the self-appeasing bullshit we humans have been feeding ourselves since Cain killed Abel I don’t know what does.

What, exactly, is ethically relevant about a Starbucks-sipping guy sitting in an air-conditioned facility in southern California firing drone-delivered missiles at houses occupied by who knows how many innocent people —maybe blowing whole families to bits— then heading home to have a bucket of Kentucky Fried with his wife and kids without even risking a broken arm or two!? What kind of functional morality is that? Is that the sort of automatic morality we want to program into drones?

Having been, at best, partially successful (after millenia) in establishing a decent human morality you have to wonder who’ll be designing a “functional morality” for machines, and to what end.

Now that it’s likely that drones will be employed  inside the U.S. to keep aliens out you have to wonder what rubbery concoctions of constitutional logic and human moral design will be employed to make it acceptable to use drones to keep citizens in as well, and to keep them docile. North Korea has done it without drones; imagine what we can accomplish with our wealth and mad mixture of Microsoft and Machievelli. Throw into the mix an all-purpose excuse for every kind of anti-constitutional excess; the useful rationale that’s been dropped into the laps of the all the potential Hitlers and Husseins chomping at the bit: The Perpetual War  (a la Orwell’s classic—a delightfully lucrative war for militarists and their industrial complex; namely, the War On Terror!— yes, throw in perpetual fear and war and you’ve got the stuff of terrible moral design, for machines or otherwise. Embed that morality in camera-packed drones operating out of airstrips in Topeka or Tallahassee and you have an American North Korea. Load it with crowd-control munitions and you have a blooming American Afghanistan.

Do I exaggerate?  I don’t think so.  The same minds that developed the tools, techniques and strategies to keep Americans safe from foriegn terrorists will have the same inclination to keep us safe from the domestic variety.

During this past fall’s Occupy Wall Street protests Republican Eric Cantor had this to say:

“I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country”

Turning gatherings of Americans who are protesting their economic system’s designed mechanism for sending the fruits of their work and lives upstream to collect in reservoirs of the rich into “mobs” is as easy as turning a phrase.  From a “mob” into a “mob of terrorists” is a short step for those prone to take it.  It’s then a short hop from prone to drone (but drones with a “functional morality”, of course. Drones that are “sensitive to ethically relavant features of situations.”)

And Cantor’s not the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  His voice is the wilderness; he and his fellow free-market conservative Republican mouthpieces are wildernesses of the bleakest, most threatening kind: Frank Luntz, “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort”; Karl Rove: “What are these people for? To the degree that they’re for anything, it’s left-wing nuttiness…”; Mitt Romney: “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

And so inequity goes …and grows. We haven’t even developed a functional morality for our economic system, how can we hope that we’ll have the will and way to design one for machines under the control of those who increasingly dictate the conditions of our lives?
.

by Jim Culleny
for The Greenfield Recorder

1/4/12

 

How to Pound the Final Nail

December 18, 2011

How to pound the final nail onto the coffin of a democratic republic: make Newt Gingrich president.

The Washington Post reports:

In a half-hour phone call with reporters Saturday, Gingrich said that, as president, he would abolish whole courts to be rid of judges whose decisions he feels are out of step with the country (Washington Post).

“Are we forced,” Gingrich wondered, “for a lifetime to keep someone on the bench who is so radically anti-American that they are a threat to the fabric of the country?” Gingrich asked. “What kind of judge says you’ll go to jail if the word ‘invocation’ is used? If this isn’t a speech dictatorship, I’d like you to show me what one looks like.”

This is the kind of toothpaste that cannot be shoved back into the tube. Once a presidential contender has indicated he would put the court system under the thumb of politicians he must be dismissed out of hand as being unfit to be president.

What kind of presidential candidate wants to dismantle the consitution and make the court system of the USA an expression of his political vision? If this is not a potential dictator, I’d like you to show me what one looks like.

Gingrich has made himself clear. He wants to make American courts responsive to the politics of the moment — to make them the political arm of the Koch brothers or religious fundamentalists (if your fear is of the right); or (if your fear is of the left) the ACLU or Socialist, Bernie Sanders.

Gingrich has been getting a lot of flack lately from people who know him; people who’ve worked with him. The gist of the flack indicates that Gingrich is a narcissist. Narcissists do not notice personal flaws. When a narcissist looks in a mirror they see Adonis or Alexander the Great. They’re oblivious to their expanding gut or drooping jowls. They do not perceive their potential for misadventure or mistake.

The scope of injury of small-time narcissists tends to be limited to themselves, their family, or their immediate community, but a narcissistic politician’s circle of mayhem is another story. Eighty years ago or so one of them turned their nation into a personal, adoring footstool, set Europe on fire and drew much of the rest of the world into war.

I appeal to Republicans: can this guy before he becomes your own worst nightmare.

Jim Culleny, 12/18/11

PS: One other thing.  Take a close look at the picture of Gingrich above. Study it. See if you don’t recognize what’s going on inside the man: contemptuousness, condescension, smugness, arrogance.  Look.  It’s there.

A Walmart Christmas

December 17, 2011

My sister has come to dread Christmas, and my guess is that given its profane evolution she’s not alone —there are at least a few million others besides me (although my sister has managed  to keep her religion we are still simpatico). What used to be a holiday from the world is now an up-to-the-eye-ball full-soul immersion into a jingly jangly hyperbolic environment of advertizing overkill and vacuum of worldly mysticism.

What is worldly mysticism and what is it about?

How Christmas got so out of hand is what —how it, or “The Holidays” (its commercial alias)— has burst the bounds of simple grounded generosity and morphed into an annual transcendent vehicle of commerce is what.

If mysticism suggests transcendence, and the modern expression of Christmas transcends anything the gospel writers wrote, in a manner none had in mind, then it may be at least as mystical as hell. The gold, frankincense and myrrh the three wise men offered the baby Jesus have become flat screen TVs, war-themed video games and George Foreman grills —with shepherds singing background jingles to a Morgan Freeman voice-over of God hyping the lure of gold! and the great prices on myrrh! while a computer-generated sheep bleats “But wait, there’s more…!”

But wait, there is more — or less, because (as the minimalists say) less is more. But we’ve forgotten that.  We’ve forgotten it as we’ve pursued the American Dream; the dream of more and still more. But we may have to remember it again as the least among us (the now notorious 1%)  take more and more while the rest of us  (the other 99%) get less and less of what’s left. While it’s always Christmas at the top of the heap, those at the bottom will have to set their sights on more simple and humble Christmases. This is really an upside of being down.  ” ‘Tis a gift to be simple,” the old song goes; and though it sounds like a salve commissioned by the Romanesque Koch brothers and penned by Paul Ryan, it really makes a positive point.

So don’t get me wrong, it really is a gift to be simple: to not buy into the idea that consumption is the  purpose and duty of every man, woman and child in a free market society; to not succumb to the daily droning and constant commercial explosions bursting from every screen from iPhones to banked LED arrays sprawled across the facades of Times Square; to refuse to be ok with idea that the earth is an inexhaustible source of the raw material of acquisitive bliss. It’s not. The earth can be exhausted.  It is being.

So, what is Christmas if not an invention of Wall Street: an annual holiday that celebrates consumption by jinning-up a frenzy of buying; a spasm of spending that is its very point? Forget the baby Jesus!  Remember the gold Frankincense and Myrrh!

Anyone who has read me knows I’m not religious, but I am not anti-spiritual; so my reference to the baby Jesus should be taken with this in mind.  I believe there’s value in the story of Christmas that has nothing to do with religion but has all to do with generosity and hope. The story is a metaphor for simple hope and the “genius of generosity,” as Bob Dylan wrote. It is not about the genius of Sam Walton. The Christmas story is not a commercial for Walmart.

In my mind, boiled down to its essence, the Christmas story is about the entrance of humble and guiltless innocence into a world of flawed humans before which rich wise men (if they are truly wise) will kneel and offer tributes of their wealth —either gold, frankincense and myrrh, or a higher tax rate. How this story fits into the zeitgeist of global me-first capitalism in 2011 is a real mystery that will have to be unraveled if the climax of the bible’s story (the apocalyptic one) is to be avoided.

Regardless of Bill O’Rielly’s annual rants on holiday greetings, if god is parsing anything it’s probably not sentences, but hearts. “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” makes little difference if your heart’s in the right place. If it is all your Christmases will probably be bright.

I wish you both, and hope they are.
.

Jim Culleny, 12/17/11

Even in Russia the wheels are falling off the cart of the elite.  Thousands took to public squares in Moscow and Kiev demanding changes in the way the nation is ruled, and this time the police did not intervene.

“Between 25,000 and 40,000 people filled Bolotnaya Square across the river from the Kremlin in Moscow, chanting against the “party of crooks and thieves,” as they have come to call Putin’s United Russia. An additional 10,000 gathered in St. Petersburg, with towns from Siberia to the Urals reporting 500, 1,000, or even 3,000 each in the largest opposition protests Putin has ever encountered. The Moscow organizers promised an even bigger protest Dec. 24.” —Washington Post, 12/10/2011

David Atkins at Hullabaloo summed a his post (A Global Zeitgeist) this way:

“The particulars in each country and culture are different, but it’s obvious that there is a seething discontent with the modern global political and economic order. Russia has been under the control of the plutocratic oligarchs since at least Yeltsin. America’s political system is broken and totally at the mercy of the corporate sector, with yet more proof of that coming today. The dictators of the Middle East have been making alliances with the West in exchange for keeping their petro-plutocrats safe.

“The very wealthy the world over are content with the system. But no one else is. If the powers that be thought that there would be a nice, slow, easy transition to them to a world with just an economically privileged elite and a fungible impoverished underclass, they’re wrong. It may be possible to keep an underclass cowed for generations on end, but once people have seen an alternative and lived better, forcing them quietly back into serfdom is a very difficult task.

“There’s something about self-respect that, once hard won, is very difficult to take away.”

Despite the existence of an entrenched wealthy elite in the U.S., which runs things here and is in global cahoots with leaders like Putin, we can only hope that OWS is the American expression of the global zeitgeist Atkins notes. We can only hope that despite the crackdown and evictions of OSW from public squares in American cities orchestrated by U.S. elites, that OWS will take heart with news such as this from Russia.

Jim Culleny, 12/11/2011

A Hole in the Banal

December 3, 2011

So, Socrates said to young Plato, “The things we think we know are like shadows cast on the walls of a cave by a distant light of unseen things we do not know.”

Actually, Socrates said this to a character named Gluacon in a dialog in Plato’s Republic, but Socrates might first have said this to Plato, his student, who handed it off to us in that famous work.

What Plato suggested is that our world might be nothing more than shadows of things more real cast upon the walls of our cramped habitat; shadows that have become so familiar to us, so concrete, we don’t recognize them as shadows at all.  In The Republic Plato has Socrates and Glaucon flesh-out this allegory in order to learn something. They participate in a two-way interchange that might seem a little quaint to we-who-are-too-imbedded-in-ideological-loneliness-to-want-the-truth.

In those days people apparently engaged in dialog —a now defunct interaction intended to lead to illumination and the possible resolution of conflicting ideas in the name of knowledge and equanimity. Today, however, we rely on name-calling, lies, threats and graft, not to illuminate and resolve, but simply to get what we want.

This is now how American government works. It’s also how business works —but with more finesse. While politicians bluff, batter and berate, modern business, with greater subtlety, turns our own worst inclinations against us,to benefit itself.  Business psychologically manipulates our lust for amusement and comfort in order to wring from us as much wealth as possible and hoard it while we’re busy ogling celebrities or buying and bouncing baubles.

This technique of deceit is known as advertising. The purpose of advertisement is to channel the desire of consumers in the direction of an advertiser’s current cash cow with the goal of having us part with the food and rent money to obtain something we think we must have —a 42″ flat screen TV, for instance. This works so well that people will camp out for days, lining up in big-box parking lots until the corral gate is opened, then stampede in (armed with cans of pepper spray to discourage the competition) and emerge carrying the most splendid deal of Black Friday.

Advertising is a way to maximize distraction of the masses and minimize their realization of what’s really going on. The instrument of this con job is the media —especially TV. By means of this well-honed expedient the world of workers crumbles and falls to bits while the Dow blossoms and bundled mortgages create another sub-prime millionaire. But nobody notices because everybody thinks they’re satisfied. The elite are corrupted by greed, the rest are corrupted by need (real and imagined). It’s a perfect storm of non-sustainable destruction. Yet sooner or later reality checks in, the shell of our fabrications splits and there we are trying to stuff the toothpaste of truth back into its tube while sweating in an oven of carbon-soaked atmosphere.

But this willingness to be deceived which makes us so susceptible to the wiles of politicians and the lies of corporations is just the tip of the iceberg. Socrates expressed the truth of our natural dilemma in his allegory of the cave.  He surmised that all the things we think are real might be figments of our desire to steer clear of the fearful, unknown truth of our existence (the unknown, the ineffable, death) —the truth that religion tries to make sense of by leaping over reason, science sets out to discover by adhering to it, and we go about in daily dances of distraction to avoid facing.

Recently a young person close to my heart called.  She was upset by a recollection of a cousin who died of leukemia at 13 . It was a loss that she (at 12) had really not worked out and which had suddenly and painfully surfaced. Curiously, it focused on the loss of a balloon she’d salvaged from a party given for her cousin as the disease took its toll. She couldn’t find it. She worried about its condition. As we talked it became clear that her disquiet was about something other than the balloon. It was about those shadows thrown on her too-real cave wall which were imposing themselves at that moment.

A day or so later I sent her this poem:

A Hole in the Banal

You called last night troubled.
Looking for something in particular
(a pink balloon shaped like the heart
of your long dead cousin)
you’d stumbled upon a hole in the banal:
a weakened spot in the thin skin of our conceits
stretched so taut over the otherworld
a hint of it broke through and pierced
your shell of rapt doing
and you glimpsed the truth of shades
that dance upon the walls of caves
to music most often unheard
under the rush of jets,
behind the daily brushing of leaves against sky,
drowned by the litanies of radios,
made almost silent by
the roar of willed tornadoes
blowing through the aisles of malls,
muted by the fierce narcissism of war,
the accumulation of stuff thrown up
as dikes to keep the unspeakable sea at bay
and you wondered if perhaps Socrates was right
So I recalled for you a day driving to Colrain
when a song bled from the dash
so filled with poignancy my heart broke too
and I sobbed from the steel arched bridge
where two rivers meet to the office door
remembering my mother,
my father, and Danny my autistic brother,
hearing them hearing me sob
through a veil of ordinary tears and regret
saltier than the Dead Sea
This is where you and I meet, where we all meet,
on the beach of that sea, catching now and then
between surf and horizon glimpses of creatures
breaking through, breaching the membrane
between worlds unexpectedly
as we wonder how the dancing shadows
on cave walls can be true
.

by Jim Culleny
12/3/11
for The Shelburne Falls Independent